I first met Mara Kaye in November 2014, when she was singing the blues with the Yerba Buena Stompers at the San Diego Jazz Festival. “Singing the blues” doesn’t quite express the intriguing cognitive dissonance she created. Imagine a very commanding young woman, dressed as if for a trendy gang meeting in her native Brooklyn, singing the fatal blues of Victoria Spivey (the general theme being either “You broke my heart so you will die,” or “Don’t mess with me or . . . ” you can fill in the blank) with stomp and swerve.
Later on, other foremothers poked their noble heads in through the curtain: Fanny Brice, Memphis Minnie, Billie Holiday. So hearing a performance by Mara is rather like inviting one dear friend over for dinner and finding out that six other women — ready to party or to be very tender — are coming in, and they want to know what there is to eat. Mara doesn’t have multiple-personality disorder, and she isn’t just a gifted impersonator (think Rich Little over 4/4) but she is a complex assortment of musical selves. However, they all have the same roots: passion, tenderness, wit, intensity, ferocity, love, and swing.
Ever since I was allowed to approach Mara — once she established that I was not a stereotypical character in one of her dangerous Twenties blues and that I knew what kugel was — (both qualifications for admission to the clubhouse) I have admired her many selves, recorded her in performance, and nagged her, “When are you going to ‘make a record’ or record a CD, for goodness’ sake?”
And now she’s done just that. True, it’s a little shorter than the standard long-winded CD, but its essence is powerful. (The analog sound is gorgeous.) And this EP on BigTone Records has room for all of her selves.
At some point — one of those turning points we have in our lives — Mara and Carl Sonny Leyland found each other as musical pals, conspirators, eggers-on, and more. Sonny is a hero of mine and so many other people — an emotional dynamo at the keyboard, an invaluable partner and accompanist.
Mara and Sonny adapt themselves to the song they are doing at the moment: they unzip it and climb inside, making themselves the song’s and making the song theirs . . . a complicated verbal formulation, I admit, but immediately audible on each track. The CD is called IT HAD TO BE YOU, and I am deeply fond of this title track, yearning, passionate, content — and grittily open-hearted, a one-act play featuring two actors making the familiar script new:
IT HAD TO BE YOU is so often performed that its emotional contours have been flattened by over-exposure. Without overdramatizing, Mara and Sonny make it beautifully inevitable, making us feel the HAD.
The other songs on this disc are equally intense performances. DYSTOPIAN BLUES, composed by Mara, Alfred Howard, and guitarist Tim McNalley, expresses the angst we feel when we read the news; BLACK SHEEP BLUES is a wondrously gritty mixture of barroom piano and singing that seems to come from Mara’s deep center; Lonnie Johnson’s IN LOVE AGAIN seems a quiet rueful meditation on that subject; in other hands, GOING CRAZY WITH THE BLUES and Memphis Minnie’s STOP LYING ON ME might simply be ancient blues to be “covered” by modern musicians, but Mara and Co. aren’t archaeologists approaching the past with white gloves. The life I hear on this disc erases any distance between us and the original recordings or some dim idea of “the past”: the music and emotions are forceful and immediate, passions honed sharp as a new knife.
I’ve mentioned Sonny Leyland, who lights the way always, but the other musicians on this disc are equally devoted to the ideal of what this music should be: Jon Atkinson doubles guitar and string bass (on the first instrument, reminding me happily of Teddy Bunn); Tim McNalley plays guitar; Randall Ball is on string bass also.
The music feels real, and to me that is what matters. Physical discs can be purchased directly from Mara at marakaye.com or you can, as they say, “find her on Facebook”; the music can be downloaded from Apple Music, Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, Bandcamp . . . probably at Petco, Costco, and service stations everywhere, which is only right.
May your happiness increase!